Patience and a process transformed the Philadelphia 76ers into a championship-caliber team. While the rebuild hit some bumps along the way, there was never a deviation from the overarching message.
Sixers head coach Brett Brown was hired in 2013 to lead the team in a rebuild with a long-term mentality brought on by former general manager Sam Hinkie. And after several years of losing, they have now turned the corner—winning 52 games last season and setting the franchise up for recurring postseason success.
That message was on display last month when Duke head coach Joanne P. McCallie and assistant coach Sam Miller spent the day observing Sixers training camp in Camden, N.J.
Although the story ends at the 76ers practice facility, it all began up north in Maine, the home state of both McCallie and Brown. Although the Blue Devil head coach never interacted with the current NBA coach when she was in high school, McCallie has a long-lasting relationship with Brown's father, Bob, a Maine Hall of Fame coach.
“He was a camp coach. There’s a whole camp called Swish Camp and he was running it for boys and girls,” McCallie said of meeting the elder Brown. “He was so committed to the game.”
In 2014, McCallie was inducted into the inaugural Maine Basketball Hall of Fame class along with both Bob and Brett Brown. The older Brown caught up with McCallie at the practice facility that day and may make the trip when Duke plays at Maine in a few weeks.
‘Opened up everything’
When McCallie and Miller arrived, they didn't know what to expect. But quickly, they became fully entrenched in the 76ers organization. They first met with the medical staff, where they went through all of the players as McCallie and Miller became privy to the head coach’s detail-oriented nature.
Next on the schedule were offensive and defensive coaches’ meetings. Throughout the day, Jim O’Brien, one of the Sixers’ assistant coaches, offered guidance and a platform to ask questions after the coaching sessions.
“He would sit down for 10, 15 minutes after every meeting ask us if we had questions,” Miller said. “He just really opened up everything to us and asked if there was anything he could share with us and sat down with us at lunch.”
Miller noticed how open Brown was to the ideas of the assistants and workshopped ways to improve them if they were feasible for practice later in the day, which was adjusted as the morning progressed.
“We’re kind of sitting there and tapping each other on the shoulder like, ‘Hey, I think we’re on the right track with that. Maybe we need to tweak some things this way and that way because they’re showing us just another way of doing something,’” Miller said. “We walked in there that morning and he came and met us and said ‘Hey, you guys come down.’ Sat us right down at the table with the rest of the staff.”
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‘The Duke mafia’
In the past few months, the 76ers have added former Blue Devils in prominent front office positions. In August, Lindsey Harding was hired as a full-time scout, and just days before McCallie and Miller arrived, Elton Brand took over as general manager.
Although McCallie and Miller went to observe just for the day, their presence did not go unnoticed.
“It was really cool when we’re sitting there, there were some knocks at the door. J.J. Redick came in and just said, ‘Hey. Heard that some Duke coaches from the women’s basketball program was there.’ And then Elton Brand too,” Miller said. “It was just really cool to see that and the outpouring of love from those guys. ‘The Duke mafia,’ as J.J. called it, because we’re kind of everywhere.”
When Miller was a graduate assistant at Western Michigan, the Broncos played T.J. McConnell’s Duquesne team before he transferred to Arizona. The Duke assistant reminded McConnell of that connection and noted that McConnell’s aunt served as Pittsburgh’s head women’s coach for the past five seasons.
From the ownership down
The message that has become a hallmark of the franchise has stayed consistent over the years, especially when the ownership shifted from Comcast-Spectacor to a group led by David Blitzer and Josh Harris.
“I’ve never been around an organization in the NBA that is that open and friendly," Miller said. "There’s no doubt why they’re successful and going to be successful for a long time. That really does stem from ownership and all the way down through Coach Brown and through the rest of the team.”
Miller spent a season with the Erie Bayhawks, then the New York Knicks D-League team, in the 2013-14 season. That year, he got to know Matt Lilly, who was recently named general manager of the 76ers G-League team, the Delaware Blue Coats.
“There was a vision and a way that they were going to do this and rebuilt the whole organization. That’s why Coach Brown survived through all of this too,” Miller said. “His influence and his message is so strong that there’s no stronger personality and no stronger person to lead that group. The way he commands their attention, you’re looking at room full of guys 19 years old up to 34, 35 years old.”
The consistency is what allowed a team who won only 47 games over the course of his first three seasons to turn around and advance to the Eastern Conference semifinals last season.
That approach is what’s transpiring in Durham with the season opener around the corner.
“It all starts with what your culture is and what your leadership sets as the culture. For us, that’s Coach P. What she sets is exactly what needs to permeate through the entire team. Through the assistant coaches… there is a message that comes from Coach P and everyone gets it out to the players,” Miller said. “The challenge is now taking young people and getting them to buy in and spread that throughout the rest of the team.”
There were many similarities between the 76ers and Duke practices.
“Very efficient practice and well-run. Didn’t waste a lot of time. I’d like to think that we’re that way too. We move from thing to thing and we get to business,” McCallie said. "I didn’t know how hard the guys would work.... It was preseason, but they were casual off the court and fun, but man, when they got on the court, they weren’t messing around.”
The opportunity to shadow one of the top NBA coaches will prove invaluable for this season and beyond. After that September day, McCallie and Miller met with the rest of the coaching staff to discuss which aspects they will try to implement in Durham.
“They would talk about how defending the 3-point line—they were on the top teams in the regular season, but then in the playoffs, they were like 14 out of 16 teams,” Miller said. “We were able to look at it and open our minds to there are other ways to quantify things and can we get proof on certain things that we do and how we need to change things.”
On a strategic level, McCallie is still in the process of implementing what she learned in Philadelphia, but some of the drills and plays that McCallie runs this season will have a hint of Sixers flare.
Both McCallie and Miller plan to keep a close eye on the 76ers, even throughout their own season, and with McCallie’s connection to her Maine counterpart, she'll continue to be “a big Sixers fan.”